Pedal to the metal
Adelphia’s new engineering team is hitting on all cylinders with network rebuilds, upgrades and advanced service deployments
As Adelphia climbs out from the dark depths of bankruptcy, the MSO literally has had to jump-start an engineering engine that has stood cold and idle for more than a year.
Though Adelphia has to be extremely judicious with capital spending, unrelenting competition has called on the operator to train its focus on the fundamentals while also hastening network upgrades and deploying new revenue-driving services.
Keith Hayes and Dan Liberatore.
Faced with those demanding challenges, Adelphia has enlisted and installed a new technology team that begins at the corporate level and spills out to the regions. Led by Marwan Fawaz, the company's new chief technology officer and senior vice president, engineering & technology, this new band of engineers appears to be up to the task.
Fawaz and Keith Hayes, Adelphia's vice president of network planning & construction, sat down with CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner recently at the MSO's Denver headquarters to discuss its engineering priorities for the rest of this year and into 2004. An edited transcript follows:
CED: Now that you have your team assembled, what are your top priorities?
Fawaz: You'll hear this common theme as you talk to a lot of people at Adelphia, and that's network rebuilds and upgrades. It wasn't a surprise when we all came in here that Adelphia was behind on its rebuilds and upgrades, and for obvious reasons. The company completely stopped when we filed the petition to go into bankruptcy. All of the contractors were told to stop their work, and for the last nine months to a year, we saw a challenge when we put the team in place to get all of that started, and we did. We were able to go early on in the year from zero productivity to, right now, over 2,000 miles a month.
Hayes: The key [to the upgrade and rebuilds] is the regional teams. Getting a machine cranked back up to generate from next to nothing to almost 3,000 miles in a couple of months is just a huge undertaking when you think of all the permits, design work, parts, logistics, all the contract identification, all the subscriber notifications, all the dispatch communications. You can't just go from stop to full throttle without a lot of intermediate steps. It has taken a lot of effort, but we've had great focus. For the first time, at least from my perspective, I've seen team spirit and the breaking down of silos between the video group and the construction group and the dispatch group. The top three goals of this company are: get the rebuild done, get the rebuild done, get the rebuild done.
Getting that network upgraded lets us launch high-speed data and drastically increase our revenue per home passed, which is one of the financial keys to positioning ourselves to emerge from bankruptcy.
Fawaz: We're happy to report that by the middle of next year our target is to get to 95 percent rebuilt and upgraded, two-way active, with the ability to provide data product as well as enhanced video product. We were close to about 72 to 75 percent when the rebuild stopped. Today, we're in the low 80s.
CED: Next to upgrades, what are your other top priorities?
Fawaz: Our next priority is the data business. We had challenges from an IP national backbone, so we spent a lot of time getting our backbone upgraded. We have an effective high-capacity backbone now that maybe only one or two other MSOs have today.
The second [data] piece is our edge network–from the edge routers and the CMTSs. We've focused the last few weeks on the CMTSs. There, we've had to upgrade our very early generation, multiple suppliers. I think we had every CMTS known to man in our company, so Tom [Buttermore] is going through the process of standardizing the platform and upgrading what we have today. We're leapfrogging [DOCSIS] 1.1 to go directly to 2.0. By the end of next year, more than 70 percent of our CMTSs will be 2.0.
The last [data] area is support tools–provisioning, middleware, along with customer care. We had no provisioning system to speak of [before]. We had no interfaces to the billing system, and there was very little tier-0 support for customers. We've deployed that over the last couple of months, and completed our migration.
That was important so that we could get those subscribers directly into a walled garden and [enable] new subscribers to do self-installations without the use of CDs. We can facilitate quicker installations and we can communicate better with our customers in any event, whether it's for viruses or new promotions we're giving them or new tools to do self-troubleshooting, the provisioning platform was very critical to our data business.
CED: What are the priorities on the video side of the business?
Fawaz: When we got here, we had zero HD product in place, not much VOD to speak of, and we didn't have a set-top strategy. We have worked very hard to catch up with our peers on HDTV deployment, and by early next year, we will have complied with the [Michael] Powell-NCTA plan...and have launched HD to more than 50 percent of our footprint.
For video-on-demand, we recently selected our VOD architecture platform for the L.A. market, and we're in the process of deploying that. We will heavily ramp up early next year to offer VOD to roughly half of our footprint by the end of next year.
CED: What was involved in the business decision to be so aggressive with VOD?
Fawaz: The obvious one is competitive. So far, we see it as a retention-based product. The good news that we had is that we were so late into some of these deployments that we've experienced some significant or tremendous cost savings compared to what our peers have deployed in the past couple of years. We're seeing from 18 months ago a 50 percent reduction in cost on VOD deployment, from the GigE transport and the storage and the switching platform.
We are also looking at deploying DVR-based set-tops over the next 12 months in all of our top major markets.
CED: As you're rolling out VOD in Los Angeles, are you far enough along to know how you're going to standardize on content and storage?
Fawaz: That's still in the works. We're still finalizing the architecture for the markets and for the company as a whole. By the end of this year, we'll have a better idea of how much is centralized, and how much storage [we'll need].
Most of the stuff we're doing today we're approaching as a fast follower. We're taking products and systems that our peers have deployed and scaled over the last couple of years. We're not out there blazing trails and trying to outdo other MSOs.
The last priority I'd point out is our technical operations. We're spending a lot of time introducing metrics and performance measurements and productivity enhancement tools into the field. The focus there is service improvement [and] reliability improvement of the network. There are a lot of basic, fundamental things there that an MSO will do that we're reintroducing right now.
CED: What's the status of your VoIP efforts? I recall there was some early testing of it in the Buffalo, N.Y. area.
Fawaz: There was a trial about three years ago. Three years ago is ages ago in terms of technology development, but to answer your question, near-term, we do not have any IP telephony plans. Long-term, yes. We're focusing on the fundamental plans of the business right now. Once that's behind us, we can go to the next level and start looking at Voice-over-IP.
CED: Although you are already offering a 3 Mbps data service in some markets, are there plans now to offer a low-cost tier to target current dial-up users and fight off DSL price cuts?
Fawaz: Just to be accurate, we were already at 3 Mbps on the downstream in the majority of our markets, except for L.A. We believe the biggest enhancement is on the upstream, where we've doubled the capacity to 256 kbps. We have also introduced a new tier–a high premium tier–that's 4 Mbps downstream, 512 kbps upstream. That targets the power users, a lot of the peer-to-peer users out there. We will be monitoring that closely to see how successful we are. Obviously, there are enhanced revenues from a product like that, as well.
CED: Some operators are using byte-cap policies for their high-speed services. Is this something you're considering, as well?
Fawaz: We like to call it "consumption modeling" instead of byte-caps. We will be what we call "soft consumption monitoring," and essentially decide whether we want to make it hard consumption monitoring going forward. We haven't made that decision.
CED: So, at this point there is no specific policy being applied with consumers, or is this primarily internal?
Fawaz: It's internal monitoring. We may do something like what our peers are doing, which is to [notify] high [consumption] users...if they abuse more than their share of the network. Not in a threatening way, but to give them the ability to upgrade to our new premium product. We are looking at this from an opportunity perspective.
CED: Have you also started to look at a lower, $20 per month data tier that targets the existing base of dial-up Internet users? Though some operators have been applauded for increasing downstream caps to compete with recent DSL price cuts, some analysts have criticized that strategy, believing that it makes more sense to go after the dial-up subs.
Fawaz: It's important for us, not just Adelphia, but as an industry to continue our advantage over DSL. And we do that in three ways: First, we [have] a higher capacity, faster product; second, we're easier to activate and provision; and third is availability–we're more ubiquitous than DSL is. That is an advantage that we continue to see and one that we will continue to see for a long time.
Because of that advantage, we don't think there's pressure for us to compete on price or go after a smaller tier product. It doesn't mean that we would completely rule it out. You may see us come back to this in a year or two and do lower speeds, but that decision hasn't been made.
CED: At recent cable shows–particularly at the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo and the National Show–there's been lots of buzz about cable making a migration to an all-digital environment. Is a unified IP platform for voice, video and data where the future is for cable?
Fawaz: I think all-digital today is a misnomer. It's more of a bandwidth-reclamation strategy for us as an industry. It's to transition our analog content channels into digital content faster than we originally anticipated. Having said that, we are looking at opportunities in areas where we have bandwidth constraints to explore an all-digital network or a combination of maybe a broadcast tier plus all digital products.
[Another] component of that is how successful HDTV and HDTV penetration is from sets and consumer needs in the next three or four years, because that will accelerate the transition from analog to digital.